Comparing Religions: Theory and Practice

 School of Religion Symposium, 2004-2005

Session One  |  Session Two  |  Session Three  |  Session Four  |  Session Five

Overview of Symposium

The School of Religion at Claremont proposes to develop a new curriculum in the comparative study of religion. A core course will deal with the theoretical issues of comparison and provide the foundation for Masters and PhD candidates working in at least two religious traditions. Two other courses will put theory into practice by offering comparative approaches to specific cultures, rituals, beliefs, and symbol systems of multiple religious traditions.

A series of five seminars, attended by the School of Religion faculty and graduate students, will provide the foundation on which to build the new curriculum. Each seminar will present a different pivotal theoretical issue, as follows:  1) Complexities of Comparison, 2) Bilateral Comparison, 3) Intra-Cultural Comparison, 4) Insider/Outsider Issues in Comparison, and 5) Faculty Workshop. Seminars will be led by invited experts and a panel of CGU faculty respondents; a question and answer session will follow each seminar.


The Seminar Series

The recent collection of essays on new approaches to the comparative study of religion (Patton and Ray,) provides useful directives for a new comparativism. While most of the essays in A Magic Still Dwells:  Comparative Religion in the Postmodern Age are intended to clear the ground, William Paden himself outlines a new approach, with far humbler aspirations than the old one, that has several distinctive features which can be used to guide discussions of comparison and which we have used to design our seminar series.

Awareness is the first caveat: to compare two things is to say not that they are “the same,” but that they are alike in some specified ways and different in others. A new approach to comparison would be conditioned by the following:

·          A heightened awareness of the role of the scholar in constructing comparisons and a corresponding awareness of the distinction between what something means to the scholar and what it means to the participants in a tradition. 

·          A conceptually expanded understanding of the possibilities for setting up comparisons, the goal no longer to compare traditions in light of set themes (e.g. deity, sacrifice, myth), but to set up comparisons along theoretically focused lines of interest to the scholar.

·          A heightened awareness of the different meanings that concepts might hold for the comparativist and for the participants in a tradition, and a growing awareness of the importance of setting up comparisons that do not do violence to the traditions being studied. 

·          A recognition that traditions are not static, essentialist entities existing in isolation and, hence, comparable in the abstract, but rather shifting, dynamic movements that interact in the present and have interacted in the past.

·          A recognition that the comparison of religions is not simply the prerogative of scholars, but takes place all the time in a variety of settings, formal and informal.

Despite such a chastened attitude toward comparison, scholars have just begun to discuss the implications of this new set of assumptions for the study of religion. Our project will take them up in relation to three different types of comparisons: (1) the bilateral comparison of two traditions where contact between the two traditions exists primarily in the mind of the scholar, (2) the comparison of two or more traditions in situations where the traditions are interacting within a common cultural context and thus, implicitly at least, may be engaging in comparisons (often hostile and derogatory) that are independent of the scholar, and (3) the scholar’s reflection on comparisons implicitly or explicitly articulated in the context of formal inter-religious dialogues. An introductory session will frame the complexities inherent in the new approaches to comparison and a concluding session will investigate implications of the sessions for teaching.

The seminar sessions, discussed below, will be led by an invited scholar whose work exemplifies one of the modes of comparison and who has used that work to engage the theoretical issues of comparative work.  These scholars will also function as consultants throughout the duration of the project. They will receive transcripts of every lecture and seminar proceedings for an overview of the scope of the project; transcripts will also aid them as they continue to advise, as needed, in curriculum development.

Sessions will begin with the scholar’s lecture, the text of which will have been distributed to the six CGU School of Religion faculty respondents. Each session has one or two respondents, selected according to the relevance of their expertise and because their involvement in all aspects leading to and resulting in the new curriculum design is crucial to its success. Both before and after the sessions, the participating faculty will meet with the presenter to discuss first the format of the seminar and second, the relevance of the seminar to course design, for which these same six faculty will be responsible. A question and answer period will conclude each session. All School of Religion graduate students and faculty will be required to attend; other interested Consortium faculty and students will also be welcomed.

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 Session One:  Complexities of Comparison (7 September 2004)

Diana Eck, Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies at Harvard, first mapped a new kind of religious diversity, which she calls “georeligious”; that is, “Hindus in Moscow, Sikhs in London, mosques in the Bible belt.” (Patton and Ray, p. 133), and in America, almost everything.  It is this multiplicity of religions within a local context that is at the root of and requires the new comparativism, asserting at the same time that approaches treating religion as an isolated phenomenon or a bounded cultural system are no longer even viable. Eck’s book, A New Religious America, in its appeal both to academic and popular audiences, is evidence that even this approach to religion is not bounded within an academic culture. Under her directorship, the Harvard Pluralism Project also produced a multi-media resource, On Common Ground: World Religions in America.

Eck will lead this first seminar and introduce the series with a lecture on the challenges of studying and teaching religions comparatively in a pluralistic society. Indeed, she is most appropriately positioned to provide an overview of the complexities of the new comparativism.  A scholar of Hinduism, a United Methodist long active in ecumenical and inter-religious dialogues, and a member of the faculties of the Arts and Sciences and the Divinity School at Harvard, Eck has reflected for many years on the complexities in the process of comparison, the multiple roles that persons take in their various capacities as scholars of religion and participants in more than one tradition, or none at all, in formal dialogues, and in everyday interactions in cities around the world.  School of Religion respondent will be Dean Karen Torjesen.

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Session Two:  Intra-Cultural Comparison (4 November 2004)

This session will explore the complexities of setting up comparisons on two levels: that of the scholar’s interest and that of the traditions themselves. With comparisons commonly having been made between traditions as abstractions rather than as living, “on the ground” systems interacting with each other and with other systems, scholars of American religions studying the interaction within the American context were, for some time, discounted in the ranks of comparativists. In her contribution to the Patton and Ray volume, Winifred Sullivan points out the irony of this situation, articulating the ways in which the American context, indeed, provides fertile ground for comparison between traditions that share a common cultural context.  Scholars have the opportunity in this context not only to compare traditions in the abstract along lines of personal interest, but also to explore implicit comparisons in situations of contact, interaction, competition and conflict.

Dean of Students and Senior Lecturer in the Anthropology and Sociology of Religion of the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, scholar of religions of North America, Winnifred Sullivan will lead this session. She will discuss court cases in which religious traditions encounter each other and the legal system. School of Religion respondents will be Kenneth Wolfe, Pomona College, and Gary Gilbert, Claremont McKenna College.

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 Session Three:  Bilateral Comparison:  (9 December 2004)

The central focus of the session will be the premises upon which scholars now base a comparative religions study, given the criticism of a universal category of the sacred providing a common framework that dictates the elements or aspects of religion to be compared.  A bilateral comparison of two traditions will be explored, in which   contact between the two exists primarily in the mind of the scholar. Particular attention will be given to: 1) setting up such comparisons along theoretically focused lines of investigation that reflect the scholar’s interests and, at the same time, respect the indigenous categories of the compared traditions; and 2) limiting the scope of such comparisons to such units as, for example, particular figures, movements, and texts.

Barbara Holdrege, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at University of California at Santa Barbara and a respected scholar of both Judaism and Hinduism, will lead the session. Holdrege chairs Asian Studies and is a member of the Faculty Advisory Committee on Jewish Studies. Her courses focus on critical analyses of cross-cultural categories such as scripture, body, and sacred space.  Her pioneering book, Veda and Torah:  Transcending the Textuality of Scripture, is a model of comparison across two traditions with commonalties not immediately apparent but becoming so as Holdrege creates the categories through which comparison will be conducted. School of Religion respondent will be Zayn Kassam, Pomona College.

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 Session Four: The Insider/Outsider Distinction in Comparison (22 February 2005)

The purpose of this session is to develop a robust, reflective interaction between comparative study of religion and inter-religious dialogue, noting especially the nature of comparison implicit in dialogue and the nature of dialogue implicit in comparison. Inter-religious dialogue involves implicit models of comparison that can be explored and critiqued in the light of new approaches to the comparative study of religion. Conversations between scholars in comparative study of religion and participants in inter-religious dialogue suggest not only potentially more complex frameworks for inter-religious dialogue, but also more varied critiques of the comparative study of religion.

Leading the seminar will be William Scott Green, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Rochester and teacher in Jewish Studies. With the perspective and methodological approach of a scholar of comparative religion, Green will explore the implicit models of comparison in two recent publications, each reflecting lay summaries of Jewish/Christian interreligious dialogue: Dabru Emet and Christianity in Jewish Terms. School of Religion faculty respondents will be Ann Taves and Marvin Sweeney, both of CST and CGU.

 Session Five:  The Pedagogy of a Comparative Approach (Spring 2005)

The final session will involve the School of Religion faculty of CGU and the Consortium colleges, each speaking on the challenges of teaching the tradition of their expertise in multi-religious classrooms.  The central question threading each presentation will be: How can diverse approaches to comparison assist in framing issues in the heat of classroom debate?

Curriculum Development (Summer 2005)

The new graduate curriculum for comparative studies in religion will be completed in the summer of 2005, in order to be implemented in Fall 2005. The faculty primarily responsible for the design will be those serving as respondents in the seminars; however, all School of Religion faculty will be consulted, as will the scholars invited to lecture. The three courses, in their final form, will be presented for approval to the CGU School of Religion curriculum committee prior to the fall semester.

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FMI, contact the office of Religion and Culture at or 909.607.9592

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